Category Archives: Biology

2312: Terraforming the Solar System, Terraforming the Earth

Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest book “2312” is set in that titular year in a Solar System alive with busy humans and thousands of artificial habitats carved from asteroids. Earth is a crowded mess, home to eleven billion humans, but no longer the home of thousands of species, now only preserved, flourishing in fact, in the habitats. Spacers, those living in space, are long-lived, thanks to being artificially made “bisexual” (male & female) and some are living even longer by virtue of small size. Humans live from the Vulcanoids – a belt of asteroids just 0.1 AU from the Sun – out to Pluto, where a quartet of starships are being built for a 1,000 year flight to GJ 581. Mars has been terraformed, via Paul Birch’s process of burning an atmosphere out of the crust to make canals, while Venus is snowing carbon dioxide (another Birch idea.) The larger moons of Jupiter and Saturn are extensively inhabited and debating their terraforming options.

On Mercury Stan introduces us to the moving city Terminator, which runs along rails powered entirely via thermal expansion of the rails as they conduct heat from Mercurian day and radiate it away in the Mercurian night. Mercury is a planet of art museums and installations of art carved out of the periodically broiled and frozen landscape. Sunwalkers walk forever away from the Sunrise, braving the occasional glimpse of the naked Sun, which can kill with an unpredictable x-ray blast from a solar flare.

The two main protagonists are Swan, an Androgyn resident of Mercury, a renowed designer of space-habitats whose mother, Alex, has just died; and Wahram, a Wombman resident of Titan, who is negotiating access to solar energy for the terraforming of his home world. Due to a freak “accident” the two must journey through the emergency tunnels underneath Mercury’s Day-side, an experience which draws them together inspite of being literally worlds apart in personality and home-planets.

There’s a lot going on in 2312 and Stan only shows us a slivver. Plots to reshape the worlds and plots to overthroe the hegemony of humankind. But for our two interplanetary lovers such forces can’t keep them apart.

Of course, I’m not here to review the book. This being Crowlspace, I’m looking at the technicalities. Minor points of fact have a way of annoying me when they’re wrong. For example, Stan mentions Venus wanting to import nitrogen from Titan, which is rather ridiculous. The atmosphere of Venus is 3.5% nitrogen by volume, which works out as the equivalent of 2.25 bars partial pressure. Or about 3 times what’s on Earth. So importing nitrogen would be the equivalent of the Inuit importing ice.

Stan is critical of interstellar travel being portrayed as “easy” in Science-fiction. He mentions a fleet of habitats being sent out on a 1,000 year voyage to a star 20 light-years away – given the uncertainties of these things and the size of habitats, that’s not an unreasonable cruise speed. Yet he describes it as being “a truly fantastic speed for a human craft.” But at one point he mentions that a trip to Pluto from Venus takes 3 weeks, an unremarkable trip seemingly, yet that requires a top-speed of 0.022c – significantly higher than the starships!

He’s a bit vague about the pace of travel in the Solar System via “Aldrin cycles” – cycling orbits between destinations, timed to repeat. Buzz Aldrin developed the concept for easy transport to Mars – have a space-station with all the life-support in the right orbit and you only have to fly the passengers to the station, rather than all their supplies. The station either recycles everything or is resupplied by much slower automated freighters using electric propulsion. Stan’s mobile habitats do the former, with some small topping-up. But such Cyclers are slow. Stan mentions a Mercury-Vesta Cycler trip taking 8 days. Not possible for any Cycler orbit that’s bound to the Sun (i.e. cycling) – a straight-line parabolic orbit would take a minimum of 88.8 days. A proper Cycler needs to be on an orbit that can be shaped via the gravity of the planets to return it to the planets it is linking together, else too much fuel will be expended to reshape the orbit. Preferably an orbit that isn’t too elliptical else the shuttle fuel bill is too high. A minimum-energy Hohmann orbit would take 285 days to link Mercury and Vesta.

These are quibbling points. The real meat of the book is the optimistic future – a dazzlingly diverse one – that is basically plausible. Enticingly possible, in fact. Yet the optimism is tempered by the fact that not everyone is living in a wise, open society. Earth, even in 2312, remains a home to suffering masses, their plight made worse by the greenhouse effect’s flooding of low-lying parts of the Globe, and the Sixth Great Extinction’s erasure of most large animals from the planet (fortunately kept alive or genetically revived in the mobile habitats.) New York is mostly flooded, becoming a city of canal-streets, something I can imagine New Yorkers adapting to with aplomb.

The real challenge of the 24th Century, in Stan’s view, is the terraforming of the Earth, remaking a biosphere that we’ve ruined in our rush to industrialise. Perhaps. We certainly have many challenges ahead over the next 300 years…

Life in the Year 100 billion trillion – Part I

If our Universe is open, either flat or hyperbolic in geometry, then it will expand forever… or at least until space-time’s warranty expires and a new vacuum is born from some quantum flip. Prior to that, most likely immensely distant, event the regular stars will go out and different sources of energy will be needed by Life in the Universe. A possible source is from the annihilation of dark matter, which might be its own anti-particle, thus self-annihilating when it collides. One possibility is that neutrinos will turn out to be dark matter and at a sufficiently low neutrino temperature, neutrinos will add energy to the electrons of atoms of iron and nickel by their annihilation. This is the energy source theorised by Robin Spivey (A Biotic Cosmos Demystified) to allow ice-covered Ocean Planets to remain hospitable for 10 billion trillion (1023) years.

Presently planets are relatively rare, just a few per star. In about 10 trillion years, or so, according to Spivey’s research, Type Ia supernova will scatter into space sufficient heavy elements to make about ~0.5 million Ocean Planets per supernova, eventually quite efficiently converting most of the baryon matter of the Galaxies into Ocean Planets. A typical Ocean Planet will mass about 5×1024 kg, be 12,200 km in diameter with 100 km deep Ocean, capped in ice, but heated by ~0.1 W/m2 of neutrino annihilation energy, for a planet total of ~50 trillion watts. Enough for an efficient ecosystem to live comfortably – our own biosphere traps a tiny 0.1% of the sunlight falling upon it, by comparison. In the Milky Way alone some 3,000 trillion (3×1015) Ocean Planets will ultimately be available for colonization. Such a cornucopia of worlds will be unavailable for trillions of years. The patience of would-be Galactic Colonists is incomprehensible to a young, barely evolved species like ours.

We’ll discuss the implications further in Part II.

Orlando is Awesome!

Too much to tell on the very aggressive schedule here, so a detailed report will need to wait, but I met a FAN! You know who you are. Thanks for the encouragement and I promise more content – I have some actual journal paper ideas gestating and I will need input from my audience, I suspect. One is a paper on Virga-style mega-habitats and Dysonian SETI, to use a new idea from Milan Cirkovic. The other looks at exoplanets and Earth-like versus the astrobiology term of “habitable” – the two are not the same and the consequences are sobering. The recent paper by Traub (go look on the arXiv) which estimates 1/3 of FGK stars has a terrestrial planet in the habitable zone does NOT mean there’s Earths everywhere. What it does mean and how HZ can be improved as a concept is what I want to discuss.

More later. I have my talk to review and get straight in my head – no hand notes, though I have practiced it – plus I want something helpful to say to Gerald Nordley, mass-beam Guru, on the paper he graciously added me as a co-author. Also I will summarize my talk and direct interested readers to the new web-site from John Hunt, MD, on the interstellar ESCAPE plan.

Black Holes older than Time?

Two recent arXiv preprints combined make for an interesting idea. Here’s the most recent Science headline maker…

Some black holes may be older than time

…which handily has the arXiv link…

Persistence of black holes through a cosmological bounce

…Carr & Coley pose the idea that some black holes get through a cosmological Bounce (a Crunchy Big Bounce) relatively unscathed. George Zebrowski used something like that idea in his “Macrolife” novel (1979), in which Intelligent life from previous Big Crunchy Bounces survived in the Cosmic Ergosphere. Poul Anderson did it earlier in “Tau Zero” (1970), but the problem with both is that the mass of the Universe, even if it has a net spin, probably won’t form a black-hole style ergosphere when it contracts inside its own event horizon. The topology is all wrong for regular cosmology and it’s doubtful whether a white-hole style cosmos expanding in a precosmic void would ever go Big Crunch. However they might’ve been partly right, thanks to this intriguing preprint…

Is There Life Inside Black Holes?

…in which Vyacheslav I. Dokuchaev speculates that Life might orbit within supermassive black hole event horizons because it can and it might use the emissions of the Cauchy Horizon and massive time dilation for technological purposes. If Life can live inside a Black Hole, and Black Holes can survive the Crunchy Big Bounce, then might not Life survive too? Or am I speculating over a data-void on too many planks of inference? Perhaps only a dive into a Black Hole will ever tell us for sure, though whether we can ever send the news home is debatable. According to Igor Novikov we might be able to access the regions inside via a wormhole specifically dropped in…

Developments in General Relativity: Black Hole Singularity and Beyond

…which might provide a means to reach the aliens inside from past Cosmic Cycles. Perhaps that’s exactly what they want or are hoping for. Of course such vastly old entities – if they’ve survived – might be so utterly foreign to us cosmic youths that we might be unwittingly unleashing “Elder Gods” of Lovecraftian style moral indifference. Or perhaps we’d find them to be akin because of the daring that sent them across the Event Horizon in the first place? Cosmic Extreme Sports, anyone?

[found Under a Gibbous Moon]

Hydrogen Greenhouse Worlds…

The first planets to form probably attracted a primary atmosphere of H/He from the solar Nebula. In our Solar System these were driven off from the four Inner Planets and retained by the Outer Giants, but in theory smaller planets can retain such a mixture. I’ve speculated about such worlds on these blog pages before and now there’s a new arXiv piece discussing the greenhouse abilities of H/He…

Hydrogen Greenhouse Planets Beyond the Habitable Zone

…the summary conclusion being that 40 bars of H2 can keep the surface at 280 K out to 10 AU around a G type star and 1.5 AU around an M star. Thus planets with oceans of water can exist at Saturn-like orbital distances given enough primary atmosphere. Super-Earths are the most likely to retain their H/He primary atmospheres due to their higher gravity, as young stars put out a LOT of EUV light which energizes the hydrogen and strips it away in a billion years or so, if the planet is too close. Out past ~2 AU for a G-star and that effect isn’t so dramatic, thus a Super-Earth where the Asteroid Belt is today would’ve retained its primary atmosphere and probably be warm & wet.

Such a “habitable planet” is only barely defineable as habitable because it has liquid water, but is unlikely to remain warm/wet habitable if the hydrogen is exploited/depleted by methanogens making methane out of it with carbon dioxide, nor oxygenic photosynthesisers making O2, via CO2+H2O->CH2O+O2, which then reacts rapidly with hydrogen. Could another kind of photosynthesis evolve to restore the hydrogen lost? Hydrogen makers exist on Earth, so it’s not unknown in biochemical terms, but I wonder what other compound they need to release net hydrogen from methane/sugars/water?

Strange Habitats

Some recent news pieces have expanded possible locales for Life. We’ve looked at…

Supernova made Earths warmed via Dark Matter

…and we’ll look at…

White Dwarf Habitable Zones

…but a new(ish) idea is “failed stars” – brown dwarfs, but smaller than the 13 Jupiter-mass deuterium-burning limit – might be suitable for life based on other solvents like ammonia and ethane, not just water…Failed Stars for Life

Another idea, which Frederick Pohl imagined in his last Heechee novel, is Life existing inside super-massive Black Holes…

Is There Life inside Black Holes?

…a Kerr-Newmann Black Hole (i.e. A spinning one) has a region between its inner and outer event horizons which permits stable orbits, thus providing a locale for adventurous Lifeforms to exist. Just how they would get power for living and avoid in-falling matter from beyond the outer horizon is speculative, at best, but truly advanced entities might want direct access to the singularity that might exist within.

But does General Relativity give us a sure guide to the interior of Black Holes? Theo M. Nieuwenhuizen has applied some alternative gravity theories to black holes, with the interesting result that instead of infinite blue-shift at the event horizon, and even more bizarre phantasmagoric phenomena within, instead the mass of the collapsed star might form a giant Bose-Einstein Condensate, without any of the singularities and weird horizons of regular GR. Of course whether the particular gravity theory is correct requires experimental confirmation, but it does suggest that plain-old GR, as Einstein gave it to us, might be incomplete.

Fermions & the Fermi Paradox II

Since my first brief note on R.J.Spivey’s essay two newer versions have appeared…

Version 1: From fermions to the Fermi paradox: a fertile cosmos fit for life?

Version 2: Fermi’s pardox and the interpretation of the stelliferous era

Version 3: A biotic cosmos demystified?

…while other researchers have asked whether Dark Matter has a role in making habitable planets in the present day…

Dark Matter and the Habitability of Planets

…the latter arguing that self-annihilating Dark Matter (whatever it might be) may be a significant energy source for starless planets near the Galactic Core. If Spivey’s thesis is correct, then such planets are prime targets for would-be Galactic Colonists to begin their multi-gigayear “conquest”.

White Dwarfs and the Long Dark

White Dwarfs are already relatively common in the Galaxy, but as the Universe ages they will proliferate. About 200 billion will form before the gas runs out for star formation in the Milky Way. But by then the Milky Way and Andromeda’s M31 will merge as ‘Milkomeda’ – a largish Elliptical Galaxy – roughly doubling the numbers. Stars will age and brighten as Milkomeda ages at ever smaller stellar masses, until all the fusible gases are depleted and stars are too small to fuse.

In the Long Dark that follows, every 100 billion years, star corpses and wannabe stars, the brown dwarfs, will collide with sometimes spectacular results. A brown dwarf and white dwarf collision will probably result in either a renewal of fusion burning for the white dwarf or a nova explosion. Two brown dwarfs colliding could produce an low mass star or a renewed hot brown dwarf glowing from the collision’s kinetic energy. Two white dwarfs colliding could have a number of outcomes – with enough energy the helium or carbon fusion Main sequences can be triggered. Alternatively a mass above the Chandrasekhar Limit, or close to it, can produce a thermonuclear detonation, with the stars totally disrupted in a Type Ia Supernova.

According to the Fertile Cosmos proposal of R.J.Spivey each Type Ia conflagration produces sufficient heavy elements to make roughly 450 thousand Earth mass ocean planets. These, in turn, are warmed via neutrino pair-annihilation in their iron cores, sufficient to keep their sub-glacial oceans warm for a 100 billion trillion years.

Fermions & the Fermi Paradox

R.J.Spivey writes a provocative essay for the arXiv…

From Fermions to the Fermi Paradox: A Fertile Cosmos Fit for Life?

…basically Spivey suggests we’re jumping to conclusions too soon about Life in the Cosmos, that the real party is after our current Stelliferous Era, when Life exists in a multitude of planets formed from supernova remnants, powered by neutrino annihilation in pressurized iron. Spivey is also disinclined to include us as that “Life” – we might yet attain that level of advancement, but for now our Future fate is for us to create. We might fail to advance to the level of Galactic Colonists, able to adapt to Ocean planets under ice, living off the thin trickle of energy from neutrinos (via the reverse photo-neutrino effect) for 100 billion trillion years. He suggests that the efforts to make artificial life will fail and that we’ll need to hone our bioengineering skills to remodel an ecosystem fit for the Ocean planets of the distant future.

Femtotech – the Outlook

In the previous post I mentioned the Femtotech discussion at H+ Magazine…

There’s Plenty More Room at the Bottom: Beyond Nanotech to Femtotech

…and a companion piece…

Searching for Phenomena in Physics that May Serve as Bases for a Femtometer Scale Technology

…both discussing the prospects for femtotech, which is femtometre scale technology or manipulation of processes at the femtometre scale. A femtometre is 1 millionth the scale of a nano-metre and the scale at which nuclear processes, the realm of the strong force, is dominant. Femtotech would involve speeds trillions of times higher than nanotech – itself trillions of times quicker than events at the metre scale. The energy levels would be similarly higher too.

To get an idea of what femtotech could do, one should look at Alexander Bolokin’s speculative paper on materials composed at the femtometre scale with nuclear strength…

Femtotechnology: Nuclear Matter with Fantastic Properties

…a fantastic cornucopia of possibilities arise if such material can be made, and made stable. No material held together by mere electromagnetic forces can make, for example, the Dyson Sphere an actual whole sphere. AB-Matter femtotech could. Conceivably advanced cultures have wrapped themselves in femtotech, so that not only are they able to make star-system sized spheres, but also divert light around the sphere and redirect their own waste heat in directions of their choosing.

One wonders if advanced civilizations haven’t “gone stealth” for reasons we can’t imagine and have migrated to the Galactic Perimeter for a better view of the CMB…

Galactic Gradients, Postbiological Evolution and the Apparent Failure of SETI

…perhaps leaving behind advanced automation able to keep an eye on future trouble-makers like us.